Rock rivals: Robbins, Harding, and a battle for supremacy in Yosemite Valley


Rivalries in competition serve to draw the battle lines and drive the storylines. Especially the mano a mano type. Think Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Think Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Arnie (RIP) and Jack. Royal Robbins and Warren Harding.

Wait, who? Not the president. Yosemite rock climbers. Yes, even rock climbing has legendary rivalries.

The 1950s saw the rise of the middle class. World War II had served as a boon to the economy and corporations were paying well. People were earning higher incomes, expanding home and auto ownership in the country. Vacations, once something only the elite experienced, were now something the working class could enjoy, as well.

The National Park Service offered America’s great lands to this demographic. Yosemite catered to the middle class white family looking to expose itself to a bit of restrained, censored wildness. Restaurants and cozy accommodations offered families an escape from the suburbs without the hassle of leaving behind modern conveniences.

But there was culture clash emerging at this time, too, and Yosemite would serve as a battleground.

In contrast to the content, picket-fence owning, middle class, this period also saw the rise of the beat generation. The beatniks were a group of disillusioned young people in search of their souls, who focused more on travel, the arts, and experience rather than securing stability. Some were hanging out in coffeehouses and some were riding waves and catching rays on the beach. And, as told in the documentary Valley Uprising, some beatniks near San Francisco and Los Angeles were eschewing the rungs of the corporate ladder to climb the faces of giant rocks.

Eventually these bands of self-proclaimed “dirtbags” made their way to Yosemite, which became their Mecca. Yosemite is home to two famous granite formations that rise thousands of feet into the sky—El Capitan and Half Dome. Instead of being content marveling at the rocks from the valley below, these beatnik deadbeats began to climb them, ushering in a golden age of rock climbing from 1955-1970.

These climbers were hated by the park rangers for their loud parties at base camp. Unemployed and broke, the climbers scavenged for food, even looking to eat the leftovers from guests’ plates at the nearby restaurants. One climber recalled stumbling upon damaged cans of cat food that a grocery store had thrown out. He quickly collected them, providing food for a few weeks for his group.

At the heart of this period was the rivalry between Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, two men who served as stark contrasts to one another in appearance, style, and philosophy.

Robbins was an intense man, hyper-competitive and serious about the craft of climbing. He wore his hair short, was bespectacled, and could be found around camp reading classic literature. Even his name—Royal–gave him a regal air.

Harding, on the other hand, had been given a presidential name, but was hardly civilized. He was in his 30s and still living with his mother. His unshaven face matched his unkempt brown locks. He had a crude sense of humor and a deep penchant for women and booze.

Robbins and his climbing mates set forth principles of rock climbing that included rules minimizing the use of bolts, onto which climbers could hook, assisting them in their climb. He looked to elevate the sport of rock climbing to a noble pursuit, ensuring that climbs were done with integrity and a respect for the granite.

Harding was agitated by this. He mocked Robbins’ rules and snobbish way, referring to Robbins and his clan as the “Valley Christians.” He established the Lower Sierra Eating, Drinking, and Farcing Society, which was dedicated to gluttony and sloth.

Robbins was the first to tackle the northwest face of Half Dome. It was a multi-day climb and many wondered if he would even survive. He and a team of three climbers followed a trail of cracks up the 2000 foot wall, tethering themselves to the side of the wall at night. After five days of intense climbing, Robbins made his way to the summit, becoming a legend and receiving recognition as the best climber in the Yosemite Valley.

This didn’t sit well with Warren Harding, who decided that he’d head up the biggest wall in the valley—the 3000 foot nose of El Capitan. In an effort that took his team two years to complete, Harding used a series of fixed ropes and bolts to the make it to the top. The ropes allowed the climbers to come down at night and for longer stretches of rest. The ropes were used to haul up gear, including alcohol and a Thanksgiving turkey baked by Harding’s mother.

Everything about this climb irked the high-minded Robbins. The length of time, the ropes, the bolts, the obvious disregard for Robbins’ rules. He saw it as a slap in the face and responded in kind with a climb of his own up the nose of El Cap. Robbins scaled the wall without coming down, and without the use of the rope system. Ropes were used, but not in the same manner that Harding had utilized them. The climb reaffirmed his status as king of the climbers.

The next few years saw Robbins establish several new routes along the faces of El Cap and Half Dome. But his rivalry with Harding would include one more legendary battle.

In 1970, Harding targeted the “Wall of the Early Morning Light,” or “The Dawn Wall,” of El Capitan. Robbins had declared this wall off limits, as its blank surface would require the placement of too many bolts. Harding didn’t care.

He decided not to use fixed ropes this time, but hammered plenty of bolts into the face of El Cap. Harding and another climber didn’t come down for rest, even when a storm threatened their pursuit of the top. They clung to the wall, suspended there with jugs of wine, waiting out the storm. A crowd began to gather, assuming that the two were stuck. Park rangers initiated a rescue mission, when an empty can came tumbling down. A note was attached, written by Harding:

“A rescue is unwanted, unwarranted, and will not be accepted!”

The storm eventually passed and the men continued their ascent, reaching the top in 28 arduous days, placing 300 bolts along the way.

Harding became a national sensation, touring the country, appearing on television talk shows to discuss his feat.

Robbins, in defense of his philosophy, sensibilities, and ego, vowed to wipe away the blotches left by Harding along the Dawn Wall. With a chisel in tow, Robbins ascended the rock, chopping off the bolts as he encountered them. But something odd happened as he climbed. Rather than encountering a series of bolts mindlessly placed, Robbins found an incredibly difficult route, an inspired route, one that he could respect. Eventually he stopped removing the bolts and simply followed the path to the top.

The climb would be the last in the rivalry between golden age rock climbers Royal Robbins and Warren Harding. Shortly thereafter, both would move on to other pursuits. Well, actually only Robbins did. He founded and still runs a successful outdoor clothing company that bears his name, while Harding spent his days on the front porch with his mom, drinking his red wine. He died in 2002.

Rivalries often define styles of play, but also define generations, divide friends and family, and which side you stand on says something deeper about you. Not just that you love the Celtics or you like trash-talking, socially-conscious boxers. These divides are about the fundamentals of who you are as a person. They’re fights over your soul.

But this dichotomous way of thinking is flawed. On the surface, rivals often represent something very different, but at their core, similarities emerge. Look at Larry Bird and Magic Johnson. One was white, the other black. One was reserved and the other possessed a megawatt smile. One represented blue-collar Boston and the other the flash and excess of 1980s Los Angeles. They may have played basketball differently and represented different cultures, but they both loved the sport and competition. Their fuel came from the same source. And so it was with Robbins and Harding. They approached the sport of rock climbing differently (and possibly life), but both loved it equally.

And so it is with us humans. What is often juxtaposed as a battle of extremes is often, in many ways, a battle of similarities.

“We’re insane. Can’t be any other reason.”

–Warren Harding on the motivation of rock climbers

(I do not own the photographs in use. Simply contact me if they need to be removed and I will graciously do so.)






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